The cover story in the April issue of Discover is about the anti-GMO movement in Europe.
I found it interesting but also narrowly centered on the opposition in Germany. For example, the piece neglects to discuss, much less mention, a widely publicized event last summer involving a UK government sponsored research lab. This featured UK scientists mounting a public campaign to dissuade anti-GMO protesters from destroying their research. It was unprecedented and powerfully effective. The clash between the two sides played out for weeks, made headlines around the world, and led to a public reexamination of the anti-biotech cause (at least in Britain). To me, any discussion today of the “crop wars” in Europe needs to include this watershed battle.
I also have a few other things to nitpick about the Discover article (which you can read for free, after registering at the site), but I’ll leave that for another day. Meanwhile, let me turn to a sidebar piece accompanying the feature. It is about the growing opposition to GMOs in the United States. In my opinion, this short article has major shortcomings. And I’m being polite when I say that.
When I drew attention to the piece via Twitter yesterday, there was near instantaneous shock and outrage to it from some scientists. Others also shook their heads in disbelief. This included Rachael Ludwick, a software developer who is passionate about science and agricultural issues. Ludwick is a smart, articulate communicator who participates frequently in science-based forums that focus on biotechnology. Initially, I had thought to express my own reservations about Discover’s sidebar piece. But then I asked Ludwick to offer a rebuttal, which follows below.
The Discover headline was so promising: “Anti-GMO Grass-Roots Effort Gains Ground in U.S.” I hoped it would be about just how strange the alliances in the anti-GMO movement are. We have groups like the Environmental Working Group and the Union of Concerned Scientists working alongside organic industry boosters and organic food companies. And then there are the (louder and shriller ) groups that claim dire risks from GMO foods. So this opposition in the U.S. is a topic that deserves closer examination.
Instead, what I found is a piece that repeated–almost without challenge–misleading claims about GMOs stated by anti-GMO activists. Most of these claims are at best half-truths. Let me be up front: I can’t write about everything I think is misleading in this piece. There’s just too much. But, there are a few ideas that are repeated uncritically which are far more interesting than this piece lets on.
Probably the most common claim of anti-GMO activists is that GMOs are untested and unsafe. Charles Benbrook, an organic proponent (why is a proponent of organic and opponent of GM merely labeled an “agricultural policy expert”?) is quoted in the story saying that the “science just hasn’t been done.” That’s just not true. There are hundreds upon hundreds of studies. Genetically engineered crops are some of the few foods tested before they come on the market and all the data is on the EPA’s website. This testing is not typically the case for non-biotech foods. In the 1950s, the kiwi fruit was introduced to the U.S. without testing. We’ve since learned that it’s allergenic. More recently, new celery varieties have resulted in contact rashes in workers due to increased amounts of natural toxicants called psolarens (similarly, new potato varieties sometimes develop excess toxic solanine).
But there’s a kernel of truth behind the not tested claim. David Schubert (who is cited in the piece as a biologist without noting his association with the anti-GMO campaigner Jeffrey Smith) is very careful when he says: “no significant safety testing is required by FDA.” That is absolutely true. All safety testing done on GMO crops is voluntary. But even though it’s voluntary, every company has complied! The lack of mandatory testing does unnecessarily worry people: what good is the FDA if it can’t even require safety testing for food? This is perhaps why the American Medical Association recommended mandatory safety testing, despite also saying current GMO foods are safe and labeling is unnecessary. Pre-market testing should probably be mandatory, but it’s just not the case that GMOs are untested before going to market.
GMO foods are also subject to repeated studies by scientists after they come on the market for toxicity and other risks. Overwhelmingly, these studies show no problems for human health. You wouldn’t know that from the Discover piece, since it chose to mention problems found by a small minority of researchers, often heavily criticized. The piece wiggles around this issue by noting it’s hard to prove a causal link in humans. The reality is that links aren’t even proved in animals.
But what about those “superweeds” mentioned in the piece? And that toxic Roundup? There’s context missing here too. Roundup is indeed toxic; to most plants and marginally to some animals; but it is one of the safer herbicides we have. While the term “superweeds” is not one scientists use, preferring phrases like “herbicide resistant,” they are a real problem. We have seen an increase in weeds resistant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). But what the Discover piece is not telling us is that this is normal and expected: any herbicide used heavily for years will naturally select for weeds that can survive it. The most important missing context though, can be found in this graph, which shows cases of herbicide resistant weeds, grouped by site of action.
One herbicide deserves special mention. Atrazine (a member of the triazine family) doesn’t harm corn, so it’s been used for decades to control weeds in corn fields. Unsurprisingly, that class of herbicides has had significant weed resistance for much longer than Roundup. The point here is emphatically not to deny the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. That is a real problem. But it’s not a problem with genetically engineered crops per se, but with management practices. Roundup Ready crops could have been banned ten years ago and farmers would still have weeds resistant to herbicides. You just wouldn’t hear about them from anti-GMO campaigners.
There’s a real story in the alliance of anti-GMO groups and how, in the United States, they are using the political system, instead of vandalism (as in Europe) to advance their agenda. This story isn’t it; instead, it prefers to repeat myths and exaggerations about GMO foods in a one-sided manner.
There are some good questions about GMO activism springing up in the U.S. For example, why do organic food growers care so much about labeling GMO ingredients when transgenic crops are not allowed in organic products? Why is the anti-GMO campaign only now gaining traction in the United States? What’s behind that? Those would be interesting questions to explore in a story.